For the first time since 2009/10, Celtic will finish the 2020/21 season without a single piece of silverware.
Ordinarily, this would not raise too many eyebrows. After all, there are only three trophies on offer in any given season, and although these three trophies are more often than not divided up between the two large Glasgow teams, other teams do pick up trophies from time to time and if one of the two Glasgow teams happens to have a particularly good season then it tends to leave the other with nothing. It’s never good for the team left with nothing when it’s win or bust in Glasgow, but it’s not out of the ordinary.
But somehow after a quadruple treble winning run it seems somewhat spectacular that this particular Celtic side should finish with nothing. Particularly in a season where they could have finally realised the dream of the fan base who have spent most of the past decade singing “here we go, ten in a row”.
Glasgow City’s record of thirteen in a row (and counting) will stand the test of time. The men’s record set by Jock Stein’s Celtic in 1974 and matched by both Walter Smith’s Rangers in 1997 and Neil Lennon’s Celtic in 2020 will remain unbroken.
When Rangers finally ended Celtic’s stranglehold in 1975, it was in an era when other teams also challenged, so much so that Celtic finished third that season after a disappointing second half to the league season. They still won both the League Cup and the Scottish Cup that season though as the legendary Billy McNeill bowed out after lifting so many trophies as Celtic captain. There will be no such similar ending for Scott Brown this year as he departs for his player-coach role at Aberdeen in the summer.
When Rangers run was ended by Celtic in 1998, the title race went to the very last day and Rangers still had a cup final to play in the following week – although neither went the Ibrox side’s way in the end as Hearts picked up the cup at Celtic Park a week after the league championship had gone to the same ground. Disappointment for Rangers after a decade, but they were still as close to silverware as you would expect them to be after so much time.
When you’ve been winning for so long, everyone understands that it can’t last forever. No one associated with Celtic really expected this level of success in recent years and the unprecedented winning for four consecutive trebles is almost impossible to believe even now. It’s like something you would do in Championship Manager.
Yet it did happen, just as this season has seen a spectacular shift where Celtic, previously unbeaten in thirty six cup ties, have won just one cup tie out of three. The outgoing nine in a row champions are a full twenty points behind the newly crowned champions with still four league games to play.
So what happened? How did Celtic go quite so quickly from winning it all to not even truly competing for anything?
Well, first let me say that it is very much in a large part down to what has happened at Ibrox. Steven Gerrard may have taken his time to get things going in his first managerial role, but he was given that time and that has paid dividends. Four games from only the fourth unbeaten league season in Scottish football history, three cup games from a possible league and cup double, another great run in Europe and perhaps most impressive of all a defensive record which sees such a lack of goals conceded that even the all conquering Celtic of the last few years can only dream about – it’s undoubtedly one of the best seasons in the club’s history. So let nothing I’m about to say detract from their achievements this season. Even if Celtic had done far better this season, there was still one hell of a challenge coming from across the city no matter what.
But as good as it has been in the blue half of Glasgow, it has been utterly shocking in the green half.
Celtic this season have slumped from one crisis to the next. From failing to get a key man in Fraser Forster back between the sticks, to losing to Ferencvaros at home in Champions League qualifying, to the ridiculous Bolingoli jaunt to Spain, to then not even registering a shot on target in the first derby game of the season, to then losing at home to Ross County in the League Cup, to then losing the second derby of the season to a team who themselves didn’t register a shot on target (the only goal of the game was an OG), to then farcically going to Dubai when everyone else was going back into lockdown…
All of this was of course done with a backdrop of having no fans in the stadium, to which several people at Celtic have suggested that they had somehow been hit worse by it than other clubs. Forgive me if I try to give that ridiculous notion at least some merit, but Celtic are well known for being heavily backed by the fans. It is something that has been commented on many times by opposing players after big European nights at Celtic Park. The “more than a club” mantra is truly believed by the fans and is used as a marketing ploy by those who run the club. Yet despite all of that, Celtic Park has been the only ground in the Premiership this season not to have a single supporters banner on display during games.
What the club say and what the club do are all too often not quite the same thing.
The fans who signed up to season tickets they weren’t even sure they could use were told that by doing so they would get added value. To date this added value appears to be nothing more than having the questionable privilege to watch as the season unravelled before their very eyes – assuming the live stream actually worked in the first place. If you didn’t have a season ticket for Celtic, and Sky hadn’t picked up the match, you just didn’t get to see it at all. Away fans had no option to see their team play. Even non-season ticket holding Celtic fans had no option. The disrespect towards their own fans has been perhaps the worst aspect of this season for Celtic.
When Celtic fans protested outside the ground in November after the League Cup exit, they didn’t do so because of some entitlement. Yes, it meant that for the first time in nearly five years a trophy would be going to another team in Scotland, but that wasn’t really the problem. Many in the media scoffed at the protests, and not just because covid was taking hold again and protests were a public health issue. They scoffed because they couldn’t understand how fans could be so fickle after such unprecedented success. Hadn’t Neil Lennon come to their aid when Brendan Rodgers left them in the lurch? Hadn’t he delivered the third treble and two thirds of the fourth? Remember, the delayed Scottish Cup final was a month later!
But these fans could see the rot that was taking hold. Something was clearly wrong at the club, and players for whatever reason just weren’t performing as they had been in the past. Change was needed before the dream of ten in a row vanished before their eyes. It was needed before it was too late.
But instead of change, those in charge at Celtic closed ranks. Zoom calls between Dermot Desmond, Peter Lawwell and Neil Lennon took place and everyone inside the club was on the same page. Lennon could fix the problems, he’d stay in place and it would be reviewed in January.
The quadruple treble was delivered, just. Even that final against Hearts summed things up at a two goal lead was binned by a fragile Celtic and the extra time lead lasted even less time. The penalty shootout went their way and history was made, but it did nothing to impress the fan base who were still calling for change. January came and went too and by the time it did the league was all but over and still nothing would change. Lennon didn’t resign until the end of February, a full eighteen points behind Rangers. By that time, even Lennon’s former teammates in the media who had still been understandably defending him when fans were protesting had turned against him.
Of the “three zoomers”, Desmond is the only one who will remain at Celtic. The biggest shareholder is going nowhere until his pipe dream is realised of Celtic moving to the English setup – something that has never seemed truly likely in the now twenty plus years of this seemingly unflushable story. Well, unless this apparent super league happens and the English games needs to replace some big names, in which case what would even be the point in going to another dead market?
Peter Lawwell will be replaced soon, with Dom McKay starting today. He attended the cup game at Ibrox, he no doubt has a fair idea of the massive challenge now ahead of him. Well he can thank his predecessor for that particular mess. Celtic currently have no manager, a squad that needs completely overhauled, and a fan base who have never felt as distant from the club as they do right now. With all that uncertainty and the fact we still don’t know how and when people will be able to go to games again, his first challenge is likely going to be selling season tickets. For a core, that won’t even be a question, but just how big is that core? And what can he do to convince the rest?
The problem Celtic have had for a while is the problem Celtic have had throughout their own history – shortsightedness. The European cup winners of 1967 had a conveyor belt of talent behind them in the youth setup, and the Celtic board of the time penny pinched them out of the club. The descendants of that board were similarly penny pinching after the centenary season and it nearly sent the club the wall. Fergus McCann planned his five years and very little more beyond selling his shares back to the fans (in reality this meant a small handful of rich Celtic minded men like Desmond and a scattering of an insignificant amount of shares for the regular fans), and it meant the club was on the back foot even after stopping Rangers attempts at ten in a row. Peter Lawwell’s first act at Celtic when he joined in 2004 was to continue the squeeze on the budget after Seville.
Celtic’s dominance of the last decade clearly came in huge part thanks to the demise of Rangers. Domestic success is never guaranteed, but it would have been a major shock had Celtic not picked up league title after league title. It’s ironic then that Celtic didn’t become the unrelenting force they have been recently until there was a Rangers in the top flight once more, but there’s also a very good reason for that.
Neil Lennon took Celtic to a good level in his first spell in charge. Ronny Deila made some changes that helped develop people like Kieran Tierney and Callum McGregor into becoming established and ultimately key men in the first team. But it was Brendan Rodgers coming in that really kicked Celtic on to domestic dominance. When he left, Lennon came back in an hour of need.
It should have ended there though. Lennon should have been there for the remainder of that one season. Celtic needed another man of Rodgers’ calibre to continue the path they were on. Someone who could not only maintain the same levels but go on again and make more of a mark in Europe. Lennon seemed to have the right ideas there at times, in some ways even more so than Rodgers, but too often it seemed to fall apart for one reason or another. For every Barcelona or Lazio there was a Copenhagen or Ferencvaros.
When Lennon was offered the job full time for a second time immediately after the Scottish cup final, it sent out a clear signal that Celtic were aiming to do just enough to get that coveted ten in a row. But this was always short sighted, and ultimately doomed to failure, but it speaks volumes of the mentality across the whole club – including the fans.
Celtic should never have aimed for ten in a row. It should have been eleven, twelve, thirteen in a row as well. It should have been domestic dominance, but with European ambition too. Too often Europe felt like nothing more than a side show with a nice cash injection. It should have been dominance with the academy at the heart of the team. Sadly for Celtic there hasn’t been a breakthrough from the academy since Deila introduced Tierney, and the Scotsmen in Celtic’s team currently like David Turnbull, Ryan Christie and Greg Taylor have mostly been bought in from elsewhere. There’s only really Callum McGregor and James Forrest who have come through the academy and stuck around, though you can’t really fault Celtic for cashing in on Tierney. The jury is still out on Stephen Welsh, I certainly won’t be measuring him by anything this current Celtic defensive display has shown.
Celtic’s dominance in Scotland is at an end, and many will rejoice at this, and not just at Ibrox. It remains to be seen what, if any, impact there will be across town now that the mission has been accomplished and the ten has been stopped. The staggering amount spent to get through the lower divisions and once again challenge Celtic are well known but seem to be of little concern to anyone in the Ibrox boardroom. If Gerrard can now get them to the Champions League group stages, and his European record to date would suggest that is certainly more than possible, that will certainly help too. If they can retain much of the team that has done so much this season, it’s hard to see anyone stopping them from adding more silverware next season too. You can bet they’ll be “going for 56” before too long, and selling season tickets shouldn’t be anywhere near as challenging when you’re on this kind of high.
Conversely, Celtic are all but starting again. A new chief executive, an as yet unknown manager and coaching staff, a new captain from within a squad of players of whom very few are expected to stick around, and disenfranchised and distant fan base whose dreams are shattered. Celtic now need new ideas as well as new faces. All of that is going to take time, how long remains to be seen. The sooner they can get started, the better.